Three cheers for the Watermill Theatre! And three cheers for the three-strong cast who have brought The Picture of Dorian Gray to life so vividly, not only at the Watermill but also at schools and village halls across Oxfordshire, West Berkshire and Wiltshire. Some years ago, the Oxfordshire Touring Theatre Company used to perform a similar role in bringing “BIG theatre to small places”. Its sad demise, due to Arts Council funding cuts, left a regrettable gap in provision which the Watermill Theatre is now helping to remedy.
I saw the touring production last night at the Stanton Harcourt Village Hall. There was no problem finding the venue as there were so many people making their way there on foot from all directions – it looked as if the whole village had turned out to see the show, and the hall was packed. In a rural location with no public transport, the chance to see theatre of this calibre right on the doorstep must be a highlight of the year. It brought the whole community together, from elderly residents to children studying Gothic literature at school. The organisers built on this by providing a cheese supper for all at the end of the performance, so the audience had ample opportunity to discuss and reflect on the production and also to meet the cast.
The main protagonists in Oscar Wilde’s story are three men but unusually they were portrayed as men by three young women, all as pristine and beautiful as Dorian Gray himself. They won the hearts of the audience the moment they stepped on the stage and embarked on their fresh, youthful retelling of the story in which the young man’s painted portrait ages and reveals the scars of his increasingly debauched life, while he himself retains his youth and beauty unblemished.
Emma McDonald was superb as the irresistibly attractive psychopath Dorian Gray, moving with superb self-assurance and elegant bearing. Her speaking voice was marvellous to hear, eloquent, measured, resonating low thrilling tones across the hall. Eva Feiler and Emily Stott were an engaging double-act as the joint narrators who also represented all the other characters. New characters were helpfully signposted, introduced by amusing little squabbles between the narrators as to who would play “the irritating mother” or the “rough sailor with the monobrow”. Together they achieved the perfect balance of appearing fast-paced but never hurried.
The emphasis in this production (written/adapted by Phoebe Eclair Powell) by Owen Horsley was on telling the story clearly to an audience unfamiliar with it, and on highlighting the issues raised in the novella. The result was a lovely, accessible version, using modern English slang – Basil was Baz, Lord Henry Wotton was Woots. Clarity was the essential production value: plain black and white costumes; simple lighting, mainly white, occasionally red or blue at moments of high drama, underscored by well-chosen sound effects; a stage bare apart from a couple of white chairs and a large white rectangular frame on wheels. The frame was most notable as it was ingeniously used both as the life-size picture frame and as doors symbolising exits, entrances, changes of scene, but which lit up with a single fine blue glowing line at moments of supernatural activity.
I hope this production will bring some new readers to the novella, to discover the additional layers of Oscar Wilde’s writing style, the clever epigrammatic wit, the sensuous, colourful, poetic and floral imagery that illuminates his writing in the original text. Theatre like this provides the perfect in-road to appreciation of literary classics for a new generation. Let’s have more like it!